Category Archives: social critique

you’re not that busy.

just omg so busyMeet the Busy Brag: social media’s hate-worthiest addition to the human experience. I am important, cry the crafted tweets and updates,

because busy. Did you guys happen to notice I’m busy? If not, here are some pics about my busy. It’s a good thing you’re not as busy as I am, or you’d miss my social media updates re: busy. I won’t see YOUR pics or posts, because busy. In demand. Hashtag overwhelm. Hashtag cost of success.”

…From my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, in which I punch the busy-brag in the face.

Because human busyness ≠ human value.


For centuries, artists have asked, explored, and hypothesized about what gives life value. When creatives give in to the notion that we’re essential and significant primarily when busy, we answer the question before we can ask it. In the process, we defy the humanistic ideals at the root our artistic efforts.

You’re not that busy. (AND you’re valuable.)

(*gasp*)

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Ghost children, empathy, and easter. 3 Monday quotes.

HOORAY MONDAY QUOTESI’ve lately been reading a wide swath of whatever, and apparently refusing to share any of it because… cohesion.
So in lieu of a blog post that would make all these come elegantly together, below are the quotes I’m saving from a few works that may or may not be awesome on the whole:

From Education’s culture of overwork is turning children and teachers into ghostsby Melissa Benn for the Guardian, April 16 2014:

Educational reform now largely equals intensive schooling: early-morning catch-up classes, after-school clubs, longer terms, shorter holidays, more testing, more homework. The trouble is, the human body and human communities do not flourish through being flogged. Families don’t benefit from frenetic rushing. They simply forget who each other is, or could be, which is where the real problems begin.

From The Most Underrated Skill for Creatives? Empathy, 99U.
In which author Jake Cook dares suggest that art is actually better when you think about your audience: rather than sweeping them to one side for the sake of introspective, hermit-like creative binges.

It is much easier to push through your creative blocks when you can actually visualize why your audience needs…
It’s not about creating a portfolio piece. It’s about helping… Working this way, with real people in mind, is much better than staring at a blank canvas or whiteboard and giving it your best guess.

Alain de Botton’s The Philosopher’s Mail featured the article, Easter for Atheists” this past weekend: a quick writeup of reasons for taking interest in the holiday’s roots — even if one doesn’t believe in a God, or that Jesus was one, or that he (god or not) rose from dead:

Among the last words Jesus was meant to have said before he died was the plea: ‘Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ Herein lies the fascinating suggestion that cruelty i sa symptom of a lack of love and understanding, but it is not the ultimate truth about anyone. People who enjoy bringing pain to others are themselves traumatized, rather than inhuman. They are not fully in command of themselves. The jeering man in the crowd is himself the victim of past horrors, deserving — if we can find it in our hearts to understand — pity rather than rage.

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The (31) Number One Female Country Songs since 2004: Summed Up by Yours Truly

2014-01-27_cw04-coverIn January, Country Weekly claimed 2014 to be the Year of the Woman in country music.

I replied with a new piece for The Ethos Review about how 2014… isn’t. Going. To be.

[O]ver the last ten years, songs by female artists make up only ten percent of country music’s number one hits (31 of 289). If that weren’t enough, these songs reached number one in part because they perpetuate country’s female stereotypes: 22 of them follow the cash cow country music narrative in which women do nothing but long for men, fall for “bad boys,” and marry uber-young.

Yes, I’m picking on country music for an issue that occurs in other genres. But country’s got an extra special dearth of gender equality. (Also, the Country Weekly headline kind of asked for it.)

The (31) Number One Female Country Songs since 2004:

(Total Number One Country Songs since 2004: 289)

2004 (4 out of 18)

Redneck Woman, Gretchen Wilson – In which the narrator confirms for all country-listening men that women are exactly what they think: happy in a small town, and ready to have sex. And babies.

Somebody, Reba McEntire – Listeners are encouraged to find a life-long love among whomever they happen to regularly run into in their small town.

Girls Lie Too, Terri Clark – Here women are empowered not by actually having power, but by lying to please the men who do.

Suds in the Bucket, Sara Evans – A country music favorite: young marriage. An 18-year-old falls in love and gets married, right out of daddy’s house.

2005 (3 out of 19)

My Give A Damn’s Busted, Jo Dee Messina – One of a few #1 hits in which a woman is not only angry at her man, but willing to leave him. For that, kudos.

Mississippi Girl, Faith Hill – in which Hill assures her fans that she really hasn’t had ambitions beyond her small town, and even if she’s “pursuin’ her dreams,” she’s (really truly she promises) exactly the same as she was back in Mississippi.

A Real Fine Place to Start, Sara Evans – In which Evans confirms that small town country gals really are enamored of men who whisk them off for sex out under the stars. In the bed of a truck, one assumes.

2006 (2 out of 22)

Jesus, Take the Wheel, Carrie Underwood – in which the narrator gives control of her life back over to God. Advocating for Christian faith is part of a longstanding recipe for country success, so this doesn’t stray from any Country Expectations. But no real complaints.

Before He Cheats, Carrie Underwood – This narrator is willing to do anything to get back at the man who’s cheating on her… except leave him. The song gives the impression of badassery, only to affirm the woman’s dependence on her cheatin’ man. She can mess up his truck, but she apparently can’t go anywhere. The song (and its video) also manages to make female revenge sexy rather than legitimately threatening. #revengefail

2007 (3 out of 25)

Wasted, Carrie Underwood – A rare anti-settling, anti-just-getting-wasted-to-deal-with-things song that made #1. Kudos.

So Small, Carrie Underwood – A nice “everything will be alright if you focus on love” tune that repeats a great deal of trite Christian genre content. Nevertheless a step up from high fivin’ with beers around a truck on a back road. Does not in any way stray from country music standards, but – no real complaints.

Our Song, Taylor Swift – In which the narrator confirms every male country writer’s notion of the ideal girl: the one who wants to go for a drive (she rides shotgun, obvs) and sneak behind her parents’ backs with a boy of whom they apparently disapprove. Pair with the 1st verse to the Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” for a match made in country heaven.

2008 (5 out of 25)

All-American Girl, Carrie Underwood – The antithesis of Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round” in which a girl falls in love at 16, assumes this boy is the best she’ll find, and gets married in a hurry – causing her boyfriend to lose his “free ride” to college. His dismissal of college in favor of youthful marriage (and a Musgraves-ian “having two kids by 25”) is celebrated as being all-American. (Also note that the girl herself has zero college aspirations. Marryin’ Young + Childbearin’ = All American Country Girl.)

Last Name, Carrie Underwood – Again, Underwood reps women as precisely the sex-eager fantasy girls represented in most male-penned country hits: girls who “lose their manners” over alcohol, get themselves lured into casual sex with who-cares-whom, get married in a rush, and have little to say later but “oh darn.”

Should’ve Said No, Taylor Swift – Ah! A woman who tells a cheatin’ man both what he should have done AND that she won’t give him a next time to do it. Kudos.

Just a Dream, Carrie Underwood – In a saccharine lyric playing on both young country love and military valor, a female narrator gets married as soon as she turns 18 (big surprise), and two weeks later her man has died in combat. Note that the young man is depicted as doing something quite honorable, while the young woman’s role is simply to wait back at home for him.

Love Story, Taylor Swift – In which Swift falls prey to the country-hit method of celebrating far-too-young marriage. She also manages to imply that women can’t take care of themselves (need daddy’s permission, need saving by a lover).

2009 (2 out of 30)

You Belong with Me, Taylor Swift – At least the two high school lovers aren’t getting married (yet), but here’s a young woman centering her life on a guy who doesn’t appreciate her. But it’s okay; she’ll just wait until he comes around. It’s not like she has anything or anyone else going on in her life.

Cowboy Casanova, Carrie Underwood – Ms. Underwood’s specialty is confirming the male country vision of women, which is in part why her songs become hits. This one’s no different: the narrator describes a “cowboy casanova” in such a way that her “complaints” about him make him sound exactly like what every male country writer thinks men are: so sexually irresistible that they consistently make girls go against their better judgment.

2010 (2 out of 28)

The House that Built Me, Miranda Lambert – A sentimental tune about a woman who tries to find herself by visiting to the home in which she grew up. While relatively harmless, it does affirm the country music belief that when you go out traipsin’ around the world, you lose something essential. (Better get on back to that small town.)

Undo It, Carrie Underwood – Like Swift’s “Should’ve Said No,” this song portrays a woman who stands up for herself and refuses to stay with a guy who “blew it.” Kudos. (Although by this point, if you’re like me, you’re wondering whether women can express strength in any way other than by getting rid of no-good men. This solitary version of Woman Power is getting pretty old.)

2011 (4 out of 34)

Turn On the Radio (Reba McEntire) – Ms. McEntire, always slightly less likely to give men their fantasy version of femalehood, here gives one the middle finger by suggesting that if he wants to hear her, he can just turn on the radio. Kudos. But sigh with the leavin-the-no-good-men thing.

A Little Bit Stronger (Sara Evans) – This narrator put up with an awful lot before she finally let go, but she did it. And she’s stronger without him: kudos. But.

Heart Like Mine (Miranda Lambert) – Like Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” it’s hard for country to resist a song that incorporates Jesus. This one’s no exception; not only is the woman tantalizingly different from the typical, “respectable” small-town girl, she loves her both some alcohol AND some Jesus. Hit song.

Sparks Fly (Taylor Swift) – In which Taylor’s female narrator again fits everything male country writers describe them to be: eager for sex, open to doing something they know they “shouldn’t,” and reliant on men to make life bearable.

2012 (5 out of 36)

Ours, Taylor Swift – Here the woman is her man’s comforter, assuring him that their love is everything, and other people’s judgments don’t matter. Relatively harmless, but certainly not straying from the country music narrative.

Over You, Miranda Lambert – Hard not to sympathize with a narrator who’s dealing with the grief of loss. It doesn’t stray from the country music narrative, but – no complaints.

Good Girl, Carrie Underwood – As in “Cowboy Casanova,” Underwood again tries to warn female listeners about a(n irresistible) “bad boy.” And like the cowboy tune, one can’t help but assume that a lot of male listeners will like the idea of being an irresistible bad boy with whom all kinds of good girls fall in love despite themselves. This track wins the Utter Ew Award with, “You want a white wedding and a hand you can hold / Just like you should, girl / Like every girl does.” #girlpowerfail

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor Swift – Swift tells the male both that he sucks and that he’s gone. Kudos.

Blown Away, Carrie Underwood – As an activist myself re: domestic violence, I appreciate the courage of this song’s representation of abuse – particularly as one of the many dangers of alcoholism. I also hope country writers and listeners who sympathize with this narrative will reassess their devotion to celebrating alcohol-as-coping-mechanism. (Not holding my breath.)

2013 (1 out of 44)

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor Swift – A holdover hit from 2012 (see above). And yes, the only #1 track by women in 2013.

2014 (out of 8 so far)

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Creativity: Neither Magic Nor Madness

Nothing like telling the entire world about one’s clinical depression to enliven a Tuesday.

Here’s my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, in which I own up to the depression that yanked me out of music-touring
and in which I punch the Mental-Illness-Makes-Better-Artists myth in the throat.

Regardless of whether you’ve suffered from mental illness, there are things we can all learn from the popular myth that “madness”—or at least some kind of untamable magic—begets creativity. By owning up to our reliance on Magical-Muse thinking, we empower ourselves and each other to make more and better work. And to be healthy while we’re at it.”

The choice may not be between “madness” and dullness, but between passive and active engagement. Here are 5 ways to kick your magic-thinking habit, and get to work.

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Because obvs women aren’t in charge lolz

Okay, there’s already a pile of responses to Mike Huckabee’s LIBIDOFFENSE 2014. But having now heard Allen West’s “thoughtful” additions, I have to ask:

Can we talk about how even the language used by conservatives constantly excludes women from positions of influence, placing them at the mercy of (male) lawmakers?

Exhibit A, Huckabee: “[W]omen are far more than the Democrats have played them to be. And women across America have to stand up and say enough of that nonsense.”

Exhibit B, Allen West: “the left tries to win the women’s vote by talking from the waist down. What we have to do on our side as conservatives … we have to talk to their heart and we have to talk to their mind”

Both men seem to think that the category of “women” and “democrats” have no one in common: there are democrats, and then there are the women democrats portray as Outta Control. And it apparently works the other way, too: there are conservatives, and then there are the women conservatives must appeal to by speaking “above the waist.”

fragile femalehood

Meanwhile, how often do politicians, on either side of the aisle, question how a political party (or its agenda) is portraying males? How much “concern” is there that men are being disrespected or undermined by political decisions? WHO WILL FIGHT FOR ENDANGERED MALE HONOR??

But seriously, when we switch the gender of politicians’ supposed concern, we can readily recognize a gross inequality that ignores women’s subjectivity, competency, and political presence.

These latest (hilarious) republican attempts to not be anti-woman reveal, in their very grammar, a view of women as outsiders — in need of men to make and enforce laws that pander to them, “win them over,” portray them “respectfully,” and even apologize to them for the other party’s failure to “get it.”

Yes, our numbers in Congress have been kept dismally low. But hey men. We’re right here. We can hear you. We may even be lawmaking like, right next to you.

It’s time to stop using “we” when talking about lawmakers, and “them” when talking about women.

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What Writers Can Glean from “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Writing MoralsIn my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, I summarize the Crazy response to The Wolf of Wall Street, and tackle the Good that might come from ethically-precarious art.
An excerpt:

Criticisms of The Wolf of Wall Street both devalue viewers—by assuming they can handle only moralistic tales—and esteem them, by providing immediate evidence of their astonishing critical thinking skills. The film’s critics affirm the necessity of moral-ethical conversations while simultaneously proving we’re capable of having them. This irony is ridiculous.

It’s also empowering.

Snag some motivation to “go write your way into controversy”…

Check it out and comment at the original post here.

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The Myths that Sustain Oppression, Income Inequality, and Poverty

wars and povertiesOkay friends. Given recent battles over minimum wageall the news regarding the 50-year anniversary of Johnson’sWar on Poverty,” and political statements that examine  poverty and income inequality, I present to you

this eerily relevant excerpt from Paulo Freiro’s celebrated Pedagogy of the Oppressed1968:

[O]ppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given — something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt.

It is necessary for the oppressors to…keep [the people] passive…by …depositing myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo; for example, the myth that the oppressive order is a “free society”; the myth that all persons are free to work where they wish, that if they don’t like their boss they can leave him and look for another job; the myth that [the current] order respects human rights and is therefore worthy of esteem; the myth that anyone who is industrious can become an entrepreneur — worse yet, the myth that the street vendor is as much an entrepreneur as the owner of a large factory; the myth of the universal right of education, when of all the Brazilian children who enter primary schools only a tiny fraction ever reach the university; the myth of the equality of individuals, when the question: “Do you know who you’re talking to?” is still current among us; the myth of the heroism of the oppressor classes as defenders of “Western Christian civilization” against “materialist barbarism”; the myth of the charity and generosity of the elites, when what they really do as a class is to foster selective “good deeds” (subsequently elaborated into the myth of “disinterested aid,” which on the international level was severely criticized by Pope John XXIII); the myth that the dominant elites, “recognizing their duties,” promote the advancement of the people, so that the people, in a gesture of gratitude, should accept the words of the elites and be conformed to them; the myth that rebellion is a sin against God; the myth of private property as fundamental to personal human development (so long as oppressors are the only true human beings); the myth of the industriousness of the oppressors and the laziness and dishonesty of the oppressed, as well as the myth of the natural inferiority of the latter and the superiority of the former.

imageAll these myths (and others the reader could list) the internalization of which is essential to the subjugation of the oppressed, are presented to them by well-organized propaganda and slogans, via the mass “communications” media — as if such alienation constituted real communication!

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opiates, meaning, and asking the wrong questions

get you some religionSo The Atlantic posted a health column today with the following title:

Where Life Has Meaning: Poor, Religious Countries.

It’s a writeup of a recent study published in Psychological Science about the quest for meaning around the globe. The grabby tag:

“Research indicates that lack of religion is a key reason why people in wealthy countries don’t feel a sense of purpose.”

As you might guess, the article is a mild celebration of religion as a source for meaning and purpose among those who don’t have much materially. And it comes with a not-so-subtle assertion that those who wish to be psychologically healthy may need to get themselves some religion.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Journalist Julie Beck begins an analysis of the Psychological Science study with a nod to the cliche (yet truthy) notion that money can’t buy happiness. This is obviously the case, because the countries in which people had the most meaning (a version of happiness) were definitively not the wealthiest:

“Toward the top [for meaning] were Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal, all of which were in the bottom 50 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.”

But as Beck notes, the study demonstrates that meaning requires more than just rethinking money as a source of fulfillment. Wealthier countries are also less religious than poorer countries — and according to the study, secularity sets wealthy countries back in the meaning department.

The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.

What we wind up with here is the assertion that having a sense of meaning ultimately requires a religious frame of reference. At first glance, this looks like a win for religious evangelists: evidence of the necessity of religion. After all, “it appears,” the author writes,

“there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less [sic] important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.”

But such a statement baldly sets up religion as an opiate (not a win for evangelists after all), while the article as a whole — particularly given its categorization under “Health” — identifies religion as our only viable source of meaning. In other words, we may be better off if we lie to ourselves. Beck tells us that the Psychological Science study actually wraps up by quoting Roy F. Baumeister’s book Meanings of Life,saying,

“creating the meaning of your own life sounds very nice as an ideal, but in reality it may be impossible.”

The takeaway? You can’t make adequate meaning on your own. You need religion. But don’t fear: the religion doesn’t have to be true! You simply need to buy in so that you never have to view your circumstances without the assistance of an inherited (or enforced) frame of (mythical) reference.

The article doesn’t claim to be offering religious or psychological advice, but it nevertheless functions as an excuse to settle — in the name of health — for what appears to be kind of working. It also reduces faith to a desperate self-protection method — a reduction which rings true to atheists, but would likely offend those who claim their faith sustains them.

what might we be missingWhere I believe Beck ultimately falls short in reporting on this study is her failure to frame the study within a global system of oppression, repression, and assertions of power. Granted, she likely didn’t set out to do so. But without critical and overarching frames of reference, studies like this help us minimize the material oppression, suffering, and/or disadvantages of those in less wealthy economies by celebrating their ability to “find meaning.” For example, the study notes that poorer countries do have much lower rates of “satisfaction” (which “has to do with ‘objective living conditions.'”) But satisfaction and meaning aren’t the same things, and at least in this study, meaning takes precedence over satisfaction. Better to be poor and have meaning than to have nice living conditions, but wind up merely “satisfied.”

Unfortunately, this conclusion is implied by those conducting the study — who may be representative of economically-privileged populations. (Is it clear that those who claim to have great meaning wouldn’t also like to have better living conditions?)

A simplistic approach to the study’s findings also encourages a creeping condescension that says, “Sure, I may have more amenities, but those people have more meaning. That’s so good for them! I’m glad they have their faith.” This removes any sense of urgency with regard to questioning the global structures and systems that reinforce privilege and disadvantage. After all, disadvantage has been so deftly handled via religion and its accompanying meaning.

Meaning and purpose are obviously common human quests, and studies of how, when, and where they are found are not only legitimate but necessary. However, when simplistically described and represented, studies like this one become a means by which the wealthy can dismiss their advantage by feigning envy of those with whom few of them would actually be willing to trade places.

Ultimately, rather than questioning the economic, political, and possibly religious reasons for a gross disparity in “living conditions” and satisfaction, this article leads readers — for a moment, anyway — to see income advantages as disadvantages. Yet even then, we aren’t encouraged to alter our privileged circumstances, or to move to a place in which we have less access to material amenities. (Not that such choices would “work.”) And we certainly aren’t urged to consider our roles in perpetuating global systems that channel wealth to places in which it already abounds. (A choice which could be truly positive.) Instead, readers are urged only to consider adding religion to the mix.

That’s all we need, after all. Some answers to the big questions.

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white privilege wears many hats

Does white privilege apply even to “broke white people”? From TheFeministBreeder.com, here’s a quick yet insightful discussion of white privilege from the pov of a white woman who “came from the kind of Poor that people don’t want to believe still exists in this country.” Author Gina Crosley-Corcoran begins,

Have you ever spent a frigid northern Illinois winter without heat or running water? I have. At twelve years old, were you making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom? I was. Have you ever lived in a camper year round and used a random relative’s apartment as your mailing address? We did. Did you attend so many different elementary schools that you can only remember a quarter of their names? Welcome to my childhood.

So when that feminist told me I had ‘white privilege’, I told her that my white skin didn’t do shit to prevent me from experiencing poverty. Then, like any good , educated feminist would, she directed me to Peggy McIntosh‘s 1988 now-famous piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

Read and respond to Crosely-Corcoran’s piece here.

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placebo for rape terror

Um PlaceboHere’s this, that you should read. (I’ll wait.)

Because seriously, for the thousandth time:

We should be able to be frightened by violence — to look at it, talk about it, work with it — without retreating into jokes and denial.
If we can’t, we should be creating communities of support that make such reality-gazing possible.

The method of dealing with our terror by blaming violence on its victims — Sure, this method works… if by “works” we mean, “makes us feel better via the numbing effect of denial and other-ing.”

If by “works” we instead mean, “keeps us legitimately safe,” or “makes us better people,” or “builds compassion” or “decreases overall violence in our communities and society,” the victim-blaming method is, objectively, a massive failure.  To pretend otherwise is to put one’s need for pretend momentary safety above one’s need for actual, legitimate safety, and/or for effective, caring support when that safety is savagely compromised.

The cost of victim-blaming is compassion. And a grasp on reality. And any effectiveness in the realm of human rights.
Please, stand in the terror. Look at it, work with it, speak it. The numbed-out words are meaningless.

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